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Predictably, the fourth round of talks over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs broke off last weekend in stalemate. Progress was evident during the marathon negotiations, however, so the break is only a recess: Representatives from the six parties to the talks — China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States — are taking three weeks to consult with their governments and each other, and will reconvene later this month. That session will prove whether North Korea is ready to make a deal; if the other five parties maintain the solidarity they have shown thus far, Pyongyang will have no real alternative.

The previous three rounds of the six-party talks were fruitless. Despite the severity of the core problem — allegations that North Korea has a clandestine nuclear-weapons program — and the prospect of a fundamental reorganization of relations among the states of Northeast Asia if it was solved, the parties were unable to even agree on statements at the conclusion of each round. China, the host and chair, merely issued its own assessment of the discussions. Hopes for a peaceful resolution dimmed when North Korea refused to resume negotiations after the third round, subsequently declared itself to be a nuclear-weapons state and upped its demands to include the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula.

But as Pyongyang escalated its belligerence, shifts were occurring in the policies of other key parties to the talks. South Korea appeared more resistant to North Korea’s appeals and took a harder line, demanding that Pyongyang be prepared to negotiate seriously about its nuclear weapons before Seoul would extend more aid. It also unveiled an offer that would provide substantial energy assistance to the North and made plain the benefits of a deal. The U.S. toned down its rhetoric, giving North Korean leader Kim Jong Il the respect he craves, and repeating at every opportunity that Washington harbors no hostile intent toward the North and would respect its sovereignty. The U.S. also signaled increasing flexibility in its position: It appeared less resistant to other parties providing aid to the North at earlier stages of a deal.

These changes produced sufficient common ground — or at least sufficient diplomatic cover — to allow the talks to resume last month in Beijing after a 13-month hiatus. While all participants dampened expectations of a deal, there has been a sense that the dynamic has changed. News that the parties would actually agree on a joint statement seemed to validate those hopes. Such a statement is not a mere diplomatic nicety: It would provide basic principles that would structure any eventual deal.

True to form, however, no consensus was reached on a statement, and the parties agreed to recess for more consultations. The stumbling block is North Korea’s access to a peaceful nuclear program. Pyongyang insists that it has the right to such a program; the U.S., worried that any civilian program could be used to build a bomb, disagrees and says the issue is nonnegotiable. Moreover, South Korea’s offer to provide electricity to the North eliminates any concerns about energy supplies.

In plain terms, the three weeks give North Korea one last chance to make a strategic choice: abandon its nuclear ambitions and receive recognition and aid or maintain its current path with the prospect of facing continued international isolation and perhaps sanction by the United Nations Security Council. During the recess North Korea will be probing to see how united the other five parties are; if Pyongyang is convinced that it cannot split them over this issue, it is much more likely to make a deal when the talks resume.

Such an agreement poses particular concerns for Japan. Of course, a deal that ends North Korea’s nuclear program is of paramount importance to Japan’s national security. But a joint declaration is unlikely to provide much solace for those who demand that more attention be paid to the bilateral issues between the two countries, in particular the abduction of Japanese citizens by the North.

After failing to hold substantive discussions during the two weeks of negotiations, Japan and North Korea held bilateral talks in Beijing after the six-party talks recessed. No progress was made during the 20-minute session. Japanese representatives repeated that a package deal that dealt with all issues was needed to normalize relations between the two countries; the chief North Korean negotiator merely promised to convey Japan’s requests “accurately” to the North Korean leadership. Pyongyang is likely to maintain its hardline stand as most of the other parties in the talks prefer to focus on the nuclear issue and resist attempts to widen the agenda. That means Tokyo, as well as Pyongyang, has to be prepared to make tough choices in three weeks’ time.

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